Deep Throat: Uncovered
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How classroom project failed to identify Deep Throat

We were wrong. We had to accept we were wrong when on May 31, 2005, Bob Woodward, the famous Washington Post reporter, revealed that his super-secret source in the Watergate investigation of the Nixon Administration was Mark Felt, second in command at the FBI.

I had my class in investigative reporting at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign make a systematic approach to finding the identity of that source who for more than 30 years was known only as Deep Throat.

My students over 12 semesters poured over FBI reports, congressional testimony, White House documents in the National Archives and autobiographies of Watergate figures. We started with the premise that everything Woodward wrote or spoke about Deep Throat was true to the best of his knowledge at the time. At the start, everyone was a suspect. Then we started narrowing the field.

We were aware of Mark Felt. There had been several claims that he was Deep Throat but we eliminated everyone in the FBI for several reasons.

Why Felt and the FBI were eliminated

It was known that Throat provided information from May 1972 until November 1973, according to Woodward and Carl Bernstein's book, All The President's Men. Felt had left the FBI in June 1973. At that time, the FBI was not directly involved in the Watergate investigation. It had been taken over by the staff of a special prosecutor.

In November 1973, according to the book, Throat told Woodward by phone that the Nixon tapes had gaps of a suspicious nature that could have been deliberate. When the students checked the newspaper reports of that week, they found that quotation from Throat to be attributed to a White House source. The FBI is an agency of the Justice Department, outside the gates of the White House.

A similar circumstance was found when students visited the Harry Ransom Research Center at the University of Texas that purchased Woodward and Bernstein's notes. Students located a report to Woodward from Throat that explained the transactions involved in checks from a Mexican bank that had gone into one of the Watergate burglar's bank account. When that was written about in the newspaper, the information was attributed to "one knowledgeable Republican source."

There were other seemingly more important reasons to feel that Throat was not harbored in the FBI. Information he gave Woodward did not always agree with FBI reports. One instance that stood out was that Throat had been quoted as telling Woodward: "You can safely say that 50 people worked for the White House and CRP [Nixon's re-election committee] to play games and sabotage and gather intelligence." It's all in the files, Deep Throat said; "Justice and the Bureau know about it."

The Post story of October 10, 1972, that resulted from the conversation, stated that "according to FBI reports, at least 50 undercover Nixon operatives traveled throughout the country." Students located an FBI report written the day the Post story was published that stated the FBI did not have such information in its files and furthermore it was not true.

Examination of Throat's words and the newspaper stories that resulted shows that much of the information was far removed from the FBI, and instead was White House insider information. An example in our study concerned the knowledge that John Ehrlichman, assistant to Nixon, told E. Howard Hunt, a leader of the Watergate burglars, to get out of town. John Dean, Nixon's chief counsel, testified that Ehrlichman gave that order and told Gordon Liddy, who passed the order to Hunt. Charles Colson, special counsel to Nixon, learned it from Dean and told Dean to rescind the order. But Liddy, Hunt and Colson wrote that they only knew it came from Dean and not from Ehrlichman, and Ehrlichman denied it. Dean said he never told anyone. The only other person believed to have knowledge of Dean's version was Fred Fielding, his chief deputy, who Colson said was present when he talked about it with Dean. We found no mention of the subject in any of the 16,000 pages of FBI reports we examined.

After the announcement that Throat was Felt, it was widely reported that Felt quit smoking in the 1940s. We did not know that because we only went into that much detail when we probed White House suspects. Unlike Felt, our choice for Deep Throat smoked and was in the White House during the entire time when Woodward was getting information from Throat.

Why we chose Fred Fielding

While the facts in our online report have not been found to be in error, the big mistake that negates the study is that we came to the wrong conclusion. We were 100 percent sure that Fielding was Deep Throat, I had said publicly. We were that sure, but we were wrong. Only Woodward and Throat together can make that statement.

Fielding was the last man standing in the process of elimination and we then ticked off a list of Throat's facts and compared them with Fielding's knowledge. Fielding saw FBI reports that Dean was getting from L. Patrick Gray, the acting director of the FBI, and sat in on FBI interviews of White House staff members. He prepared White House staff people for investigator's interviews and in one instance got a full report on what the grand jury was asking.

Most surprising was that Fielding's name was left out of Woodward and Bernstein's stories, and we were able to show that they knew of his involvement.

Fielding at one time said he was out of the country when Deep Throat met with Woodward, but we learned that Woodward had not specifically stated the date of the meeting, and had seemingly written around it to obscure it.

Finally, we recounted a published report in which Fielding stated it was probably true that when he was very ill that he said he was Deep Throat.

Fielding would not be interviewed by us or any of the media concerning our report. He would only deny being Deep Throat. He was correct. He is not Deep Throat.

The aftershock

I immediately accepted that we were wrong when Woodward confirmed that the account in Vanity Fair magazine was true. The media response was overwhelming. My e-mail took about 200 messages the first day, and my voice mail filled to capacity. Some of it was ridicule and insults, but there were some comments of support. The most heartening response was from former students. They found Woodward's statement unbelievable, but I told them it had to be accepted. I was especially grateful to students who were on summer break but volunteered to come to my office and help handle the phone calls.

The follow-up

I promised in my media interviews that our next investigation would be of how we went wrong. We also will look at some of the questions that have arisen, such as did Felt work with other people or were there other independent sources who were as important as Throat.

Did we learn from the experience? We probably learned more from being wrong than if we were right.

— Knight Chair Professor William Gaines

Deep Throat: Uncovered

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